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Wine Blogging in the Old Dominion

By JOHN HAGARTY

Growing Number of Commentators Mirror Growth of Industry

Little more than a decade ago, if you wanted an opinion about a bottle of wine you needed to consult a handful of nationally known publications or your local wine merchant. No longer. Today, wine evaluation has become the domain of anyone with a blog and a desire to share his or her thoughts on the latest winery visited or wine consumed. Most blogs are interactive so visitors can comment on the author’s views.

But what exactly is a blog? It’s a blend of the words web log and is essentially an online journal maintained by anyone with an interest in … well, anything. Given the inclination of folks to share their opinions, bloggers have exploded on the scene. In 2011, an estimated 156 million blogs were in existence worldwide. Today, there are over a thousand wine bloggers on the Internet posting observations and reviews. Given all this devotion to vinous products, one might assume wine lovers are hanging on every word bloggers write. Think again.

While there’s not a lot of research behind who is and who is not relying on wine blog advice, a British web site, Wine Intelligence, created a bit of controversy this past February by positing that its market research showed, “Bloggers are one of the least trusted sources of wine recommendations.” The report stated only one in five regular wine drinkers in the UK trusted what independent bloggers had to say about wine compared with 50% who trusted the advice of a wine merchant. In the United States, 80% of wine drinkers said they place their confidence in merchant recommendations.

Moreover, the online magazine Palate Press opines wine bloggers are failing to reach a meaningful size audience. It states the top 100 wine blogs in the nation enjoy aggregate traffic of 865,000 unique visits a month, or about 30,000 hits a day. Sounds like a lot, yes? But consider that there are 40 million wine drinkers in the U.S. and at that level of activity even the most popular bloggers are reaching less than half a percent of their audience.

Having said that, some two-thirds of U.S. regular wine drinkers surveyed do seek information about wine online. Apparently, while individuals know the Internet can be a valued source for gathering wine information, the conviction that bloggers can steer them in the right direction is low. Time might overcome some of this reticence as trust grows in the hardest working bloggers who are providing the most cogent and useful reviews.

Old Dominion Blogs

Dezel Quillen www.myvinespot.com

Dezel Quillen writes My Vine Spot, a well-respected VA wine blog.

Here in Virginia, there are over 24 blogs devoted to critiquing Old Dominion wine. The growth of the phenomenon parallels the surge in wineries statewide, which now totals almost 200. Most of blogs are journals in the truest sense since they share experiences about winery visits and wines. Typically, such sites describe how tasting room staff and their perception of the wines poured treated the writers.

This is where Virginia bloggers provide significant value added. Their observations are not solely about wine but about the entire wine experience and are often accompanied with photos or videos. These oenophiles regularly navigate the highways and back roads of the Commonwealth evaluating everything wine related so the horde of weekend wine warriors can maximize their precious free time.

Frank Morgan www.drinkwhatyoulike.com

Blogger Frank Morgan of Drink What You Like

The merit of Virginia blogs may well be enhanced in the aggregate. If a wine lover is planning a day of winery hopping, a quick review of multiple web sites should paint a relatively accurate portrait of both the atmosphere and wines at any given establishment. By tracking the number of positive impressions, quality wineries can be identified and the information used as a handy itinerary planner.

So Why Blog?

David Rosse blogs with John Thompson at Virginia Wine Notebook.

In probing Virginia blogging, a few common observations emerge as to why people blog. For most authors, but not all, their work is an enjoyable hobby and a way to share their wine experiences. There’s also a bit of vanity press involved; it’s undeniably fun to be “published” without an editor’s approval. Often the blogs are initially created to organize and document wine travels or simply as an outlet for creativity. Most bloggers do not consider themselves wine professionals but passionate and knowledgeable amateurs. If any income is derived from the work, it is modest and simply covers expenses; bloggers have full time jobs that pay the bills.

The free information scribes generate can come with a price tag. In the beginning, the gratification of attracting readers and exploring new subjects is stimulating. But as traffic grows, a blogger soon realizes if the site begins to gather cobwebs it will not gather readers. Our culture demands fresh and new everything. Todd Godbout, who writes at Wine Compass Blog, summarizes it nicely when he says, “If you do not post; they will not come. And in addition to the writing, weekends are usually devoted to traveling in search of fresh material.”

Frank Morgan, writing at Drink What you Like, says, “Since this is purely a hobby for me, I feel no pressure to post new entries or make money.” Morgan, who works for an aerospace firm and travels 100,000 miles a year, uses a lot of his flight time to write. Notwithstanding his disclaimer of feeling little pressure, his site recently reflected 11 substantive entries over a two-month period. A fair dollop of devotion is needed to hold down a full-time job and produce interest worthy blogs.

Most nationally known wine blogs typically publish at least three times a week and review thousands of wine a year. Loyal followers develop a “feed me” mentality that demands new content in exchange for readership, often at only modest remuneration for the wordsmiths. Morgan explains, however, “When I retire, I may consider a career in the wine industry. So in that sense, my hobby could ultimately reap a financial reward.”

www.virginiawinetime.com

Paul Armstrong...

Paul Armstrong at Virginia Wine Time reinforces that he and his partner Warren Richard, “… feel no pressure to write our blog even though we are posting two or three times a week. It is still fun for us. We do not write professionally so passion drives our keyboard. We have, however, scaled back a bit on winery visits because of the rising cost of gasoline.”

www.virginiawinetime.com

and Warren Richard, of Virginia Wine Time.

The married authors of Swirl, Sip, Snark, bill their blog as “The Best and Worst of Virginia Wine,” and keep readers updated on the state’s expanding industry sans rosé-colored glasses. Since their observations can range from laudatory to critical they travel incognito and post their observations at a demanding pace of five times a week.

“It’s an emotionally rewarding pastime but definitely a commitment. We find the interaction with our readers incredibly reinforcing and feel we’re building a virtual community. But to keep the dialogue going we must keep initiating the conversation. And if gas climbs much higher we’ll be forced to ease up. This is a hobby. The return on investment is supposed to be fun not expensive,” says one of the masked critics.

But for some it’s not just a hobby. Rick and Nancy Bauer have created a unique web site called Virginia Wine in My Pocket. It’s both a blog and an “app” or software application, and is the only iPhone and iPod Touch travel guide for everything wine in Virginia. The guide includes information on wineries, wine trails, B&Bs, dining and GPS mapping.

www.vawineinmypocket.com

Rick Collier and Nancy Bauer of Virginia Wine in my Pocket

As a modest money making endeavor, it comes with a commitment of some 25 hours a week just for their Virginia wine application. Crank in another 25 hours for other travel related apps they’ve created, and the couple clearly feels the pressure. Like many bloggers, Rick laments, “When a week goes by without a post, we get embarrassed and start to feel like slackers; especially in view of how prolific some Virginia bloggers are.”

But there are compensations. “It’s a lot of work keeping our wine app current. But traveling around Virginia wine country is better than writing the great American novel. It’s provided us a reason to explore the beauty of our state and get connected in a real way with the life cycle of a bottle of wine,” explains Nancy.

This writer blogs at Hagarty-on-Wine and views it as a retirement hobby. After writing about wine for local newspapers, a friend suggested the articles be archived on a blog and offered to build the site at no cost. One possible downside for writers is the time spent in front of the computer researching and writing. Blogging can become a benign addiction that some spouses find a bit annoying. Around this household when the question is posed, “Are you back on the computer again?” it’s the signal to sign off and spend time in real-world conversation.

One of the common refrains heard by many bloggers is that anyone considering writing on wine needs to commit him or herself to studying the topic. Writing only on Virginia offers the benefit of focusing on a subject near at hand; not an insignificant advantage considering that on any given day there are over 55,000 national and international wine selections for sale in the U.S. Centering one’s attention on a single state takes a lot of work off a blogger’s radar screen.

As with any movement, like-minded individuals form groups. On July 22, in Charlottesville, hundreds of wine bloggers from around North America descended on Thomas Jefferson’s hometown for a three-day symposium. The event focused on the intersection of wine with the world of blogging and social media. The fact Charlottesville was selected as the location for this major conference reflects the growing respect Virginia wine is garnering nationally. Individuals interested in learning more about the conference can visit WineBloggersConference.org.

And if you’d like to take a peek at the nation’s most popular blogs, web search Top 100 Wine Blogs. But caveat emptor.  If writing a blog is addictive, reading them can become an obsession.

John Hagarty works at Rappahannock Cellars, Huntly. Visit him at Hagarty-on-Wine.

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